Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt: Radicals and Reformers Battle For Control

The dynamic of the protests in Egypt has changed rapidly in the last several days, and not for the better. What started out as a genuine pro-freedom movement is being steadily coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other violent and extremist forces. The risk is now growing that the overthrow of the Mubarak regime could lead to an authoritarian military regime or a radical Islamist one; in either case, the people of Egypt would be further oppressed and the U.S., Israel, and the West would be endangered. Bottom line: This is a very complex and fast-moving crisis, and it could get much worse.

Let me put the situation in some context.

In Inside the Revolution, I used three categories to outline the range of players in the region, who they are and what they want:

● The Radicals are extremist Muslims who want to overthrow every regime from North Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia and replace them with Islamist dictatorships who believe that “Islam is the answer and jihad is the way.” These include groups such as al-Qaeda, Iranian Twelvers, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

● The Reformers are moderate Muslims who say that “Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way; we need more freedom, more openness, more protection of human rights and civil rights, free elections, free markets, and the creation of full-blown Jeffersonian democracies, if at all possible.” This category would include Kemal Ataturk; Anwar Sadat; Jordanian kings Hussein and Abdullah II; Moroccan king Mohammed VI; Jalal Talabani and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq; and the popular pro-democracy movement in Iran.

● The Revivalists are former Muslims who say that “Islam is not the answer, jihad is not the way, Jesus is the way — and the only way for our part of the world to move forward and make real and lasting social, economic and spiritual progress is to skip back in our history before Islam and revive what we once had: first-century, New Testament Christianity.” These tend to be apolitical and are focused on evangelism, discipleship, church planting, pastor training, and spiritual renewal. Their numbers have swelled into the millions since 1979, despite widespread (and recently intensifying) persecution.

These are the revolutionary forces in the region, people and movements who push for dramatic, sweeping change. Then there is another set of important players:

● The Resisters tend to be secular Arab-nationalist leaders who oppose significant change of almost any kind. They may be Muslims, but they don’t want to build an Islamic empire. They want to build their own empires. They want to hold onto the power, wealth, and prestige that they currently have, and gain more if they can. They strongly oppose revolutionary movements. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is a classic Resister; so are Syrian president Bashar Assad, Libyan leader Moammar Ghadaffi, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, and, in his time, Saddam Hussein.

● The Reticent tend to be weak-willed Arab leaders who seem constantly pulled in opposite directions. They don’t have strong convictions. At times they appear to want peace with Israel or a modicum of political or social reform, but then other forces push back at them and they waffle or change their tune. At the moment, Mahmoud Abbas is the best example of a Reticent leader.

● Finally, and most importantly, are the Rank-and-File — these are the billion-plus everyday Muslims citizens who work hard, play by the rules, and try to find decent jobs so they can feed and educate their families. They long for more freedom and opportunity, but mainly they keep their heads down and try not to be interfered with. They are the audience to which the revolutionaries are playing. They are watching the battle between the Radicals and the Reformers, and they are increasingly curious about the message of the Revivalists. And some of them are making their move and joining one of the revolutionary movements.

So, with that in mind, let’s focus on the crisis at hand.

What we are witnessing in Egypt is a clash between true Reformers who want free elections and free markets and Radicals who want to use the protests to overthrow the Mubarak regime and install a violent Islamist government. (The Revivalists in Egypt are, for the most part, staying underground.)

For the first few days of last week, most of the protesters on the streets were peaceful, respectful, somewhat educated, and poor to middle class. I believe they were genuinely calling for an end to the Mubarak regime’s corrupt rule in order to achieve more freedom, more and better jobs, and a democratic government that would protect their human and civil rights.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (which began in Egypt in the 1920s) were initially caught off guard by the sudden and intense rise of the protests. Then, sensing an opportunity, they moved decisively to coopt the movement for their own purposes. They mobilized their followers throughout the country and told them to take to the streets. That’s when the complexion of the protests took a turn for the worse, characterized by:

Violent attacks directed at the police: AFP reported on Saturday that an estimated 60 percent of Egyptian police stations have been set on fire.
The emergence of gangs on the streets wielding machetes and knives.
Government office buildings and cars being set on fire.
The looting of the Egyptian Museum, with vandals ripping the heads off of two ancient mummies.
The looting of shops, businesses, and homes.
Muslim Brotherhood members escaping from prison.
A rising civilian death toll — as of Sunday, there were more than 100 people dead and more than 2,000 wounded.

Almost none of these things happened last summer when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To the contrary, the Iranian people initiated what was overwhelmingly a nonviolent, principled protest movement against a Radical regime.

So I find myself in a quandary. I strongly support the right of the Egyptian people to have free elections and free markets and true opportunity in the 21st century. What’s more, I want the church to be free to win Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ, make disciples, and plant new congregations without oppression or violent attacks. I do believe Mubarak has stayed too long and his day is coming to an end.

That said, I don’t want to see the Muslim Brotherhood win. For all of Mubarak’s sins, he is not a Radical. He doesn’t want to launch a jihad against the U.S., Israel, or the West. He has maintained the peace treaty with Israel and worked to counter the Hamas movement in Gaza. He is strongly opposed to the Iranian nuclear-weapons program and has worked closely with the West to thwart it.

The Obama administration needs to be careful to support positive change in Egypt without cutting the legs out from underneath Mubarak precipitously, the way President Carter did to the Shah of Iran in 1979. The Shah had his many flaws, no question about it, but Carter’s actions helped trigger the Islamic Revolution and led to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the loss of an American ally, and the rise of a terror-exporting country that has gained in deadliness ever since. We dare not make the same mistakes with Egypt.

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